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A short story by Juliana Horatia Ewing
Title: The Brownies
Author: Juliana Horatia Ewing [More Titles by Ewing]
A little girl sat sewing and crying on a garden seat. She had fair floating hair, which the breeze blew into her eyes, and between the cloud of hair, and the mist of tears, she could not see her work very clearly. She neither tied up her locks, nor dried her eyes, however; for when one is miserable, one may as well be completely so.
"What is the matter?" said the Doctor, who was a friend of the Rector's, and came into the garden whenever he pleased.
The Doctor was a tall stout man, with hair as black as crow's feathers on the top, and grey underneath, and a bushy beard. When young, he had been slim and handsome, with wonderful eyes, which were wonderful still; but that was many years past. He had a great love for children, and this one was a particular friend of his.
"What is the matter?" said he.
"I'm in a row," murmured the young lady through her veil; and the needle went in damp, and came out with a jerk, which is apt to result in what ladies called "puckering."
"You are like London in a yellow fog," said the Doctor, throwing himself on to the grass, "and it is very depressing to my feelings. What is the row about, and how came you to get into it?"
"We're all in it," was the reply; and apparently the fog was thickening, for the voice grew less and less distinct--"the boys and everybody. It's all about forgetting, and not putting away, and leaving about, and borrowing, and breaking, and that sort of thing. I've had Father's new pocket-handkerchiefs to hem, and I've been out climbing with the boys, and kept forgetting and forgetting, and Mother says I always forget; and I can't help it. I forget to tidy his newspapers for him, and I forget to feed Puss, and I forgot these; besides, they're a great bore, and Mother gave them to Nurse to do, and this one was lost, and we found it this morning tossing about in the toy-cupboard."
"It looks as if it had been taking violent exercise," said the Doctor. "But what have the boys to do with it?"
"Why, then there was a regular turn out of the toys," she explained, "and they're all in a regular mess. You know, we always go on till the last minute, and then things get crammed in anyhow. Mary and I did tidy them once or twice; but the boys never put anything away, you know, so what's the good?"
"What, indeed!" said the Doctor. "And so you have complained of them?"
"Oh! no!" answered she. "We don't get them into rows, unless they are very provoking; but some of the things were theirs, so everybody was sent for, and I was sent out to finish this, and they are all tidying. I don't know when it will be done, for I have all this side to hem; and the soldiers' box is broken, and Noah is lost out of the Noah's Ark, and so is one of the elephants and a guinea-pig, and so is the rocking-horse's nose; and nobody knows what has become of Rutlandshire and the Wash, but they're so small, I don't wonder; only North America and Europe are gone too."
The Doctor started up in affected horror. "Europe gone, did you say? Bless me! what will become of us!"
"Don't!" said the young lady, kicking petulantly with her dangling feet, and trying not to laugh. "You know I mean the puzzles; and if they were yours, you wouldn't like it."
"I don't half like it as it is," said the Doctor. "I am seriously alarmed. An earthquake is one thing; you have a good shaking, and settle down again. But Europe gone--lost--Why, here comes Deordie, I declare, looking much more cheerful than we do; let us humbly hope that Europe has been found. At present I feel like Aladdin when his palace had been transported by the magician; I don't know where I am."
"You're here, Doctor; aren't you?" asked the slow curly-wigged brother, squatting himself on the grass.
"_Is_ Europe found?" said the Doctor tragically.
"Yes," laughed Deordie. "I found it."
"You will be a great man," said the Doctor. "And--it is only common charity to ask--how about North America?"
"Found too," said Deordie. "But the Wash is completely lost."
"And my six shirts in it!" said the Doctor. "I sent them last Saturday as ever was. What a world we live in! Any more news? Poor Tiny here has been crying her eyes out."
"I'm so sorry, Tiny," said the brother. "But don't bother about it. It's all square now, and we're going to have a new shelf put up."
"Have you found everything?" asked Tiny.
"Well, not the Wash, you know. And the elephant and the guinea-pig are gone for good; so the other elephant and the other guinea-pig must walk together as a pair now. Noah was among the soldiers, and we have put the cavalry into a night-light box. Europe and North America were behind the book-case; and, would you believe it? the rocking-horse's nose has turned up in the nursery oven."
"I can't believe it," said the Doctor. "The rocking-horse's nose couldn't turn up, it was the purest Grecian, modelled from the Elgin marbles. Perhaps it was the heat that did it, though. However, you seem to have got through your troubles very well, Master Deordie. I wish poor Tiny were at the end of her task."
"So do I," said Deordie ruefully. "But I tell you what I've been thinking, Doctor. Nurse is always nagging at us, and we're always in rows of one sort or another, for doing this, and not doing that, and leaving our things about. But, you know, it's a horrid shame, for there are plenty of servants, and I don't see why we should be always bothering to do little things, and--"
"Oh! come to the point, please," said the Doctor; "you do go round the square so, in telling your stories, Deordie. What have you been thinking of?"
"Well," said Deordie, who was as good-tempered as he was slow, "the other day Nurse shut me up in the back nursery for borrowing her scissors and losing them; but I'd got 'Grimm' inside one of my knickerbockers, so when she locked the door, I sat down to read. And I read the story of the Shoemaker and the little Elves who came and did his work for him before he got up; and I thought it would be so jolly if we had some little Elves to do things instead of us."
"That's what Tommy Trout said," observed the Doctor.
"Who's Tommy Trout?" asked Deordie.
"Don't you know, Deor?" said Tiny. "It's the good boy who pulled the cat out of the what's-his-name.
Is it the same Tommy Trout, Doctor? I never heard anything else about him except his pulling the cat out; and I can't think how he did that."
"Let down the bucket for her, of course," said the Doctor. "But listen to me. If you will get that handkerchief done, and take it to your mother with a kiss, and not keep me waiting, I'll have you all to tea, and tell you the story of Tommy Trout."
"This very night?" shouted Deordie.
"This very night."
"Every one of us?" inquired the young gentleman with rapturous incredulity.
"Every one of you.--Now, Tiny, how about that work?"
"It's just done," said Tiny.--"Oh! Deordie, climb up behind, and hold back my hair, there's a darling, while I fasten off. Oh! Deor, you're pulling my hair out. Don't."
"I want to make a pig-tail," said Deor.
"You can't," said Tiny, with feminine contempt. "You can't plait. What's the good of asking boys to do anything? There! it's done at last. Now go and ask Mother if we may go.--Will you let me come, Doctor," she inquired, "if I do as you said?"
"To be sure I will," he answered. "Let me look at you. Your eyes are swollen with crying. How can you be such a silly little goose?"
"Did you never cry?" asked Tiny.
"When I was your age? Well, perhaps so."
"You've never cried since, surely," said Tiny.
The Doctor absolutely blushed.
"What do you think?" said he.
"Oh, of course not," she answered. "You've nothing to cry about. You're grown up, and you live all alone in a beautiful house, and you do as you like, and never get into rows, or have anybody but yourself to think about; and no nasty pocket-handkerchiefs to hem."
"Very nice; eh, Deordie?" said the Doctor.
"Awfully jolly," said Deordie.
"Nothing else to wish for, eh?"
"_I_ should keep harriers, and not a poodle, if I were a man," said Deordie; "but I suppose you could, if you wanted to."
"Nothing to cry about, at any rate?"
"I should think not!" said Deordie.--"There's Mother, though; let's go and ask her about the tea;" and off they ran.
The Doctor stretched his six feet of length upon the sward, dropped his grey head on a little heap of newly-mown grass, and looked up into the sky.
"Awfully jolly--no nasty pocket-handkerchiefs to hem," said he, laughing to himself. "Nothing else to wish for; nothing to cry about."
Nevertheless, he lay still, staring at the sky, till the smile died away, and tears came into his eyes. Fortunately, no one was there to see.
What could this "awfully jolly" Doctor be thinking of to make him cry? He was thinking of a grave-stone in the churchyard close by, and of a story connected with this grave-stone which was known to everybody in the place who was old enough to remember it. This story has nothing to do with the present story, so it ought not to be told.
And yet it has to do with the Doctor, and is very short, so it shall be put in, after all.
One early spring morning, about twenty years before, a man going to his work at sunrise through the churchyard, stopped by a flat stone which he had lately helped to lay down. The day before, a name had been cut on it, which he stayed to read; and below the name some one had scrawled a few words in pencil, which he read also--_Pitifully behold the sorrows of our hearts_. On the stone lay a pencil, and a few feet from it lay the Doctor, face downwards, as he had lain all night, with the hoar frost on his black hair.
Ah! these grave-stones (they were ugly things in those days; not the light, hopeful, pretty crosses we set up now), how they seem remorselessly to imprison and keep our dear dead friends away from us! And yet they do not lie with a feather's weight upon the souls that are gone, while GOD only knows how heavily they press upon the souls that are left behind. Did the spirit whose body was with the dead, stand that morning by the body whose spirit was with the dead, and pity him? Let us only talk about what we know.
After this it was said that the Doctor had got a fever, and was dying, but he got better of it; and then that he was out of his mind, but he got better of that, and came out looking much as usual, except that his hair never seemed quite so black again, as if a little of that night's hoar frost still remained. And no further misfortune happened to him that I ever heard of; and as time went on he grew a beard, and got stout, and kept a German poodle, and gave tea-parties to other people's children. As to the grave-stone story, whatever it was to him at the end of twenty years, it was a great convenience to his friends; for when he said anything they didn't agree with, or did anything they couldn't understand, or didn't say or do what was expected of him, what could be easier or more conclusive than to shake one's head and say,
"The fact is, our Doctor has been a little odd, _ever since_--!"
There is one great advantage attendant upon invitations to tea with a doctor. No objections can be raised on the score of health. It is obvious that it must be fine enough to go out when the Doctor asks you, and that his tea-cakes may be eaten with perfect impunity.
Those tea-cakes were always good; to-night they were utterly delicious; there was a perfect _abandon_ of currants, and the amount of citron peel was enervating to behold. Then the housekeeper waited in awful splendour, and yet the Doctor's authority over her seemed as absolute as if he were an Eastern despot. Deordie must be excused for believing in the charms of living alone. It certainly has its advantages. The limited sphere of duty conduces to discipline in the household, demand does not exceed supply in the article of waiting, and there is not that general scrimmage of conflicting interests which besets a large family in the most favoured circumstances. The housekeeper waits in black silk, and looks as if she had no meaner occupation than to sit in a rocking-chair, and dream of damson cheese.
Rustling, hospitable, and subservient, this one retired at last, and--
"Now," said the Doctor, "for the verandah; and to look at the moon."
The company adjourned with a rush, the rear being brought up by the poodle, who seemed quite used to the proceedings; and there under the verandah, framed with passion-flowers and geraniums, the Doctor had gathered mats, rugs, cushions, and arm-chairs, for the party; while far up in the sky, a yellow-faced harvest moon looked down in awful benignity.
"Now!" said the Doctor. "Take your seats. Ladies first, and gentlemen afterwards. Mary and Tiny, race for the American rocking-chair. Well done! Of course it will hold both. Now, boys, shake down. No one is to sit on the stone, or put his feet on the grass: and when you're ready, I'll begin."
"We're ready," said the girls.
The boys shook down in a few minutes more, and the Doctor began the story of
"Bairns are a burden," said the Tailor to himself as he sat at work. He lived in a village on some of the glorious moors of the north of England; and by bairns he meant children, as every Northman knows.
"Bairns are a burden," and he sighed.
"Bairns are a blessing," said the old lady in the window. "It is the family motto. The Trouts have had large families and good luck for generations; that is, till your grandfather's time. He had one only son. I married him. He was a good husband, but he had been a spoilt child. He had always been used to be waited upon, and he couldn't fash to look after the farm when it was his own. We had six children. They are all dead but you, who were the youngest. You were bound to a tailor. When the farm came into your hands, your wife died, and you have never looked up since. The land is sold now, but not the house. No! no! you're right enough there; but you've had your troubles, son Thomas, and the lads _are_ idle!"
It was the Tailor's mother who spoke. She was a very old woman, and helpless. She was not quite so bright in her intellect as she had been, and got muddled over things that had lately happened; but she had a clear memory for what was long past, and was very pertinacious in her opinions. She knew the private history of almost every family in the place, and who of the Trouts were buried under which old stones in the churchyard; and had more tales of ghosts, doubles, warnings, fairies, witches, hobgoblins, and such like, than even her grandchildren had ever come to the end of. Her hands trembled with age, and she regretted this for nothing more than for the danger it brought her into of spilling the salt. She was past housework, but all day she sat knitting hearth-rugs out of the bits and scraps of cloth that were shred in the tailoring. How far she believed in the wonderful tales she told, and the odd little charms she practised, no one exactly knew; but the older she grew, the stranger were the things she remembered, and the more testy she was if any one doubted their truth. "Bairns are a blessing!" said she. "It is the family motto."
"_Are they_?" said the Tailor emphatically.
He had a high respect for his mother, and did not like to contradict her, but he held his own opinion, based upon personal experience; and not being a metaphysician, did not understand that it is safer to found opinions on principles than on experience, since experience may alter, but principles cannot.
"Look at Tommy," he broke out suddenly. "That boy does nothing but whittle sticks from morning till night. I have almost to lug him out of bed o' mornings. If I send him an errand, he loiters; I'd better have gone myself. If I set him to do anything, I have to tell him everything; I could sooner do it myself. And if he does work, it's done so unwillingly, with such a poor grace; better, far better, to do it myself. What housework do the boys ever do but looking after the baby? And this afternoon she was asleep in the cradle, and off they went, and when she awoke, _I_ must leave my work to take her. _I_ gave her her supper, and put her to bed. And what with what they want and I have to get, and what they take out to play with and lose, and what they bring in to play with and leave about, bairns give some trouble, Mother, and I've not an easy life of it. The pay is poor enough when one can get the work, and the work is hard enough when one has a clear day to do it in; but housekeeping and bairn-minding don't leave a man much time for his trade. No! no! Ma'am, the luck of the Trouts is gone, and 'Bairns are a burden,' is the motto now. Though they are one's own," he muttered to himself, "and not bad ones, and I did hope once would have been a blessing."
"There's Johnnie," murmured the old lady, dreamily. "He has a face like an apple."
"And is about as useful," said the Tailor. "He might have been different, but his brother leads him by the nose."
His brother led him in as the Tailor spoke, not literally by his snub, though, but by the hand. They were a handsome pair, this lazy couple. Johnnie especially had the largest and roundest of foreheads, the reddest of cheeks, the brightest of eyes, the quaintest and most twitchy of chins, and looked altogether like a gutta-percha cherub in a chronic state of longitudinal squeeze. They were locked together by two grubby paws, and had each an armful of moss, which they deposited on the floor as they came in.
"I've swept this floor once to-day," said the father, "and I'm not going to do it again. Put that rubbish outside." "Move it, Johnnie!" said his brother, seating himself on a stool, and taking out his knife and a piece of wood, at which he cut and sliced; while the apple-cheeked Johnnie stumbled and stamped over the moss, and scraped it out on the doorstep, leaving long trails of earth behind him, and then sat down also.
"And those chips the same," added the Tailor; "I will _not_ clear up the litter you lads make."
"Pick 'em up, Johnnie," said Thomas Trout, junior, with an exasperated sigh; and the apple tumbled up, rolled after the flying chips, and tumbled down again.
"Is there any supper, Father?" asked Tommy.
"No, there is not, Sir, unless you know how to get it," said the Tailor; and taking his pipe, he went out of the house.
"Is there really nothing to eat, Granny?" asked the boy.
"No, my bairn, only some bread for breakfast to-morrow."
"What makes Father so cross, Granny?"
"He's wearied, and you don't help him, my dear."
"What could I do, Grandmother?"
"Many little things, if you tried," said the old lady. "He spent half-an-hour to-day, while you were on the moor, getting turf for the fire, and you could have got it just as well, and he been at his work."
"He never told me," said Tommy.
"You might help me a bit just now, if you would, my laddie," said the old lady coaxingly; "these bits of cloth want tearing into lengths, and if you get 'em ready, I can go on knitting. There'll be some food when this mat is done and sold."
"I'll try," said Tommy, lounging up with desperate resignation. "Hold my knife, Johnnie. Father's been cross, and everything has been miserable, ever since the farm was sold. I wish I were a big man, and could make a fortune.--Will that do, Granny?"
The old lady put down her knitting and looked. "My dear, that's too short. Bless me! I gave the lad a piece to measure by."
"I thought it was the same length. Oh, dear! I am so tired;" and he propped himself against the old lady's chair.
"My dear! don't lean so; you'll tipple me over!" she shrieked.
"I beg your pardon, Grandmother. Will _that_ do?"
"It's that much too long."
"Tear that bit off. Now it's all right."
"But, my dear, that wastes it. Now that bit is of no use. There goes my knitting, you awkward lad!"
"Johnnie, pick it up!--Oh! Grandmother, I _am_ so hungry." The boy's eyes filled with tears, and the old lady was melted in an instant.
"What can I do for you, my poor bairns?" said she. "There, never mind the scraps, Tommy."
"Tell us a tale, Granny. If you told us a new one, I shouldn't keep thinking of that bread in the cupboard.--Come, Johnnie, and sit against me. Now then!"
"I doubt if there's one of my old-world cracks I haven't told you," said the old lady, "unless it's a queer ghost story was told me years ago of that house in the hollow with the blocked-up windows."
"Oh! not ghosts!" Tommy broke in; "we've had so many. I know it was a rattling, or a scratching, or a knocking, or a figure in white; and if it turns out a tombstone or a white petticoat, I hate it."
"It was nothing of the sort as a tombstone," said the old lady with dignity. "It's a good half-mile from the churchyard. And as to white petticoats, there wasn't a female in the house; he wouldn't have one; and his victuals came in by the pantry window. But never mind! Though it's as true as a sermon."
Johnnie lifted his head from his brother's knee.
"Let Granny tell what she likes, Tommy. It's a new ghost, and I should like to know who he was, and why his victuals came in by the window."
"I don't like a story about victuals," sulked Tommy. "It makes me think of the bread. O Granny dear! do tell us a fairy story. You never will tell us about the Fairies, and I know you know."
"Hush! hush!" said the old lady. "There's Miss Surbiton's Love-letter, and her Dreadful End."
"I know Miss Surbiton, Granny. I think she was a goose. Why don't you tell us about the Fairies?"
"Hush! hush! my dear. There's the Clerk and the Corpse-candles."
"I know the Corpse-candles, Granny. Besides, they make Johnnie dream, and he wakes me to keep him company. _Why_ won't you tell us about the Fairies?"
"My dear, they don't like it," said the old lady.
"O Granny dear, why don't they? Do tell! I shouldn't think of the bread a bit, if you told us about the Fairies. I know nothing about them."
"He lived in this house long enough," said the old lady. "But it's not lucky to name him."
"O Granny, we are so hungry and miserable, what can it matter?"
"Well, that's true enough," she sighed. "Trout's luck is gone; it went with the Brownie, I believe."
"Was that _he_, Granny?"
"Yes, my dear, he lived with the Trouts for several generations."
"What was he like, Granny?"
"Like a little man, they say, my dear."
"What did he do?"
"He came in before the family were up, and swept up the hearth, and lighted the fire, and set out the breakfast, and tidied the room, and did all sorts of house-work. But he never would be seen, and was off before they could catch him. But they could hear him laughing and playing about the house sometimes."
"What a darling! Did they give him any wages, Granny?"
"No! my dear. He did it for love. They set a pancheon of clear water for him over night, and now and then a bowl of bread-and-milk, or cream. He liked that, for he was very dainty. Sometimes he left a bit of money in the water. Sometimes he weeded the garden, or threshed the corn. He saved endless trouble, both to men and maids."
"O Granny! why did he go?"
"The maids caught sight of him one night, my dear, and his coat was so ragged, that they got a new suit, and a linen shirt for him, and laid them by the bread-and-milk bowl. But when Brownie saw the things, he put them on, and dancing round the kitchen, sang,
"O Grandmother! But why not? Didn't he like the new clothes?"
"The Old Owl knows, my dear; I don't."
"Who's the Old Owl, Granny?"
"I don't exactly know, my dear. It's what my mother used to say when we asked anything that puzzled her. It was said that the Old Owl was Nanny Besom (a witch, my dear!), who took the shape of a bird, but couldn't change her voice, and that's why the owl sits silent all day for fear she should betray herself by speaking, and has no singing voice like other birds. Many people used to go and consult the Old Owl at moon-rise, in my young days."
"Did you ever go, Granny?"
"Once, very nearly, my dear."
"Oh! tell us, Granny dear.--There are no Corpse-candles, Johnnie; it's only moonlight," he added consolingly, as Johnnie crept closer to his knee, and pricked his little red ears.
"It was when your grandfather was courting me, my dears," said the old lady, "and I couldn't quite make up my mind. So I went to my mother, and said, 'He's this on the one side, but then he's that on the other, and so on. Shall I say yes or no?' And my mother said, 'The Old Owl knows;' for she was fairly puzzled. So says I, 'I'll go and ask her to-night, as sure as the moon rises.'
"So at moon-rise I went, and there in the white light by the gate stood your grandfather. 'What are you doing here at this time o' night?' says I. 'Watching your window,' says he. 'What are _you_ doing here at this time o' night?' 'The Old Owl knows,' said I, and burst out crying."
"What for?" said Johnnie.
"I can't rightly tell you, my dear," said the old lady, "but it gave me such a turn to see him. And without more ado your grandfather kissed me. 'How dare you?' said I. 'What do you mean?' 'The Old Owl knows,' said he. So we never went."
"How stupid!" said Tommy.
"Tell us more about Brownie, please," said Johnnie, "Did he ever live with anybody else?"
"There are plenty of Brownies," said the old lady, "or used to be in my mother's young days. Some houses had several." "Oh! I wish ours would come back!" cried both the boys in chorus. "He'd--
"tidy the room," said Johnnie;
"fetch the turf," said Tommy;
"pick up the chips," said Johnnie;
"sort your scraps," said Tommy;
"and do everything. Oh! I wish he hadn't gone away."
"What's that?" said the Tailor, coming in at this moment.
"It's the Brownie, Father," said Tommy. "We are so sorry he went, and do so wish we had one."
"What nonsense have you been telling them, Mother?" asked the Tailor.
"Heighty teighty," said the old lady, bristling. "Nonsense, indeed! As good men as you, son Thomas, would as soon have jumped off the crags, as spoken lightly of _them_, in my mother's young days."
"Well, well," said the Tailor, "I beg their pardon. They never did aught for me, whatever they did for my forbears; but they're as welcome to the old place as ever, if they choose to come. There's plenty to do."
"Would you mind our setting a pan of water, Father?" asked Tommy very gently. "There's no bread-and-milk."
"You may set what you like, my lad," said the Tailor; "and I wish there were bread-and-milk for your sakes, bairns. You should have it, had I got it. But go to bed now."
They lugged out a pancheon, and filled it with more dexterity than usual, and then went off to bed, leaving the knife in one corner, the wood in another, and a few splashes of water in their track.
There was more room than comfort in the ruined old farm-house, and the two boys slept on a bed of cut heather, in what had been the old malt-loft. Johnnie was soon in the land of dreams, growing rosier and rosier as he slept, a tumbled apple among the grey heather. But not so lazy Tommy. The idea of a domesticated Brownie had taken full possession of his mind; and whither Brownie had gone, where he might be found, and what would induce him to return, were mysteries he longed to solve. "There's an owl living in the old shed by the mere," he thought. "It may be the Old Owl herself, and she knows, Granny says. When Father's gone to bed, and the moon rises, I'll go." Meanwhile he lay down.
* * * * *
The moon rose like gold, and went up into the heavens like silver, flooding the moors with a pale ghostly light, taking the colour out of the heather, and painting black shadows under the stone walls. Tommy opened his eyes, and ran to the window. "The moon has risen," said he, and crept softly down the ladder, through the kitchen, where was the pan of water, but no Brownie, and so out on to the moor. The air was fresh, not to say chilly; but it was a glorious night, though everything but the wind and Tommy seemed asleep. The stones, the walls, the gleaming lanes, were so intensely still; the church tower in the valley seemed awake and watching, but silent; the houses in the village round it had all their eyes shut, that is, their window-blinds down; and it seemed to Tommy as if the very moors had drawn white sheets over them, and lay sleeping also.
"Hoot! hoot!" said a voice from the fir plantation behind him. Somebody else was awake, then. "It's the Old Owl," said Tommy; and there she came, swinging heavily across the moor with a flapping stately flight, and sailed into the shed by the mere. The old lady moved faster than she seemed to do, and though Tommy ran hard she was in the shed some time before him. When he got in, no bird was to be seen, but he heard a crunching sound from above, and looking up, there sat the Old Owl, pecking and tearing and munching at some shapeless black object, and blinking at him--Tommy--with yellow eyes.
"Oh dear!" said Tommy, for he didn't much like it.
The Old Owl dropped the black mass on to the floor; and Tommy did not care somehow to examine it.
"Come up! come up!" said she hoarsely.
She could speak, then! Beyond all doubt it was _the_ Old Owl, and none other. Tommy shuddered.
"Come up here! come up here!" said the Old Owl.
The Old Owl sat on a beam that ran across the shed. Tommy had often climbed up for fun; and he climbed up now, and sat face to face with her, and thought her eyes looked as if they were made of flame.
"Kiss my fluffy face," said the Owl.
Her eyes were going round like flaming catherine wheels, but there are certain requests which one has not the option of refusing. Tommy crept nearer, and put his lips to the round face out of which the eyes shone. Oh! it was so downy and warm, so soft, so indescribably soft. Tommy's lips sank into it, and couldn't get to the bottom. It was unfathomable feathers and fluffiness.
"Now, what do you want?" said the Owl.
"Please," said Tommy, who felt rather re-assured, "can you tell me where to find the Brownies, and how to get one to come and live with us?"
"Oohoo!" said the Owl, "that's it, is it? I know of three Brownies."
"Hurrah!" said Tommy. "Where do they live?"
"In your house," said the Owl.
Tommy was aghast.
"In our house!" he exclaimed. "Whereabouts? Let me rummage them out. Why do they do nothing?"
"One of them is too young," said the Owl.
"But why don't the others work?" asked Tommy.
"They are idle, they are idle," said the Old Owl, and she gave herself such a shake as she said it, that the fluff went flying through the shed, and Tommy nearly tumbled off the beam in his fright.
"Then we don't want them," said he. "What is the use of having Brownies if they do nothing to help us?"
"Perhaps they don't know how, as no one has told them," said the Owl.
"I wish you would tell me where to find them," said Tommy; "I could tell them."
"Could you?" said the Owl. "Oohoo! oohoo!" and Tommy couldn't tell whether she were hooting or laughing.
"Of course I could," he said. "They might be up and sweep the house, and light the fire, and spread the table, and that sort of thing, before Father came down. Besides, they could _see_ what was wanted. The Brownies did all that in Granny's mother's young days. And then they could tidy the room, and fetch the turf, and pick up my chips, and sort Granny's scraps. Oh! there's lots to do."
"So there is," said the Owl. "Oohoo! Well, I can tell you where to find one of the Brownies; and if you find him, he will tell you where his brother is. But all this depends upon whether you feel equal to undertaking it, and whether you will follow my directions."
"I am quite ready to go," said Tommy, "and I will do as you shall tell me. I feel sure I could persuade them. If they only knew how every one would love them if they made themselves useful!"
"Oohoo! oohoo!" said the Owl. "Now pay attention. You must go to the north side of the mere when the moon is shining--('I know Brownies like water,' muttered Tommy)--and turn yourself round three times, saying this charm:
When you have got so far, look into the water, and at the same moment you will see the Brownie, and think of a word that will fill up the couplet, and rhyme with the first line. If either you do not see the Brownie, or fail to think of the word, it will be of no use."
"Is the Brownie a merman," said Tommy, wriggling himself along the beam, "that he lives under water?"
"That depends on whether he has a fish's tail," said the Owl, "and this you can discover for yourself."
"Well, the moon is shining, so I shall go," said Tommy. "Good-bye, and thank you, Ma'am;" and he jumped down and went, saying to himself as he ran, "I believe he is a merman all the same, or else how could he live in the mere? I know more about Brownies than Granny does, and I shall tell her so;" for Tommy was somewhat opinionated, like other young people.
The moon shone very brightly on the centre of the mere. Tommy knew the place well, for there was a fine echo there. Round the edge grew rushes and water plants, which cast a border of shadow. Tommy went to the north side, and turning himself three times, as the Old Owl had told him, he repeated the charm--
"Why, there's no one but myself!" said Tommy. "And what can the word be? I must have done it wrong."
"Wrong!" said the Echo.
Tommy was almost surprised to find the echo awake at this time of night.
"Hold your tongue!" said he. "Matters are provoking enough of themselves. Belf! Celf! Delf! Felf! Gelf! Helf! Jelf! What rubbish! There can't be a word to fit it. And then to look for a Brownie, and see nothing but myself!"
"Myself," said the Echo.
"Will you be quiet?" said Tommy. "If you would tell one the word there would be some sense in your interference; but to roar 'Myself!' at one, which neither rhymes nor runs--it does rhyme though, as it happens," he added; "and how very odd! it runs too--
"Ask her!" said the Echo.
"Didn't I say I should?" said Tommy. "How exasperating you are! It is very strange. _Myself_ certainly does rhyme, and I wonder I did not think of it long ago."
"Go," said the Echo.
"Will you mind your own business, and go to sleep?" said Tommy. "I am going; I said I should."
And back he went. There sat the Old Owl as before.
"Oohoo!" said she, as Tommy climbed up. "What did you see in the mere?"
"I saw nothing but myself," said Tommy indignantly.
"And what did you expect to see?" asked the Owl.
"I expected to see a Brownie," said Tommy; "you told me so."
"And what are Brownies like, pray?" inquired the Owl.
"The one Granny knew was a useful little fellow, something like a little man," said Tommy.
"Ah!" said the Owl, "but you know at present this one is an idle little fellow, something like a little man. Oohoo! oohoo! Are you quite sure you didn't see him?"
"Quite," answered Tommy sharply. "I saw no one but myself."
"Hoot! toot! How touchy we are! And who are you, pray?"
"I'm not a Brownie," said Tommy.
"Don't be too sure," said the Owl. "Did you find out the word?"
"No," said Tommy. "I could find no word with any meaning that would rhyme but 'myself.'"
"Well, that runs and rhymes," said the Owl. "What do you want? Where's your brother now?"
"In bed in the malt-loft," said Tommy.
"Then now all your questions are answered," said the Owl, "and you know what wants doing, so go and do it. Good-night, or rather good-morning, for it is long past midnight;" and the old lady began to shake her feathers for a start.
"Don't go yet, please," said Tommy humbly. "I don't understand it. You know I'm not a Brownie, am I?"
"Yes, you are," said the Owl, "and a very idle one too. All children are Brownies."
"But I couldn't do work like a Brownie," said Tommy.
"Why not?" inquired the Owl. "Couldn't you sweep the floor, light the fire, spread the table, tidy the room, fetch the turf, pick up your own chips, and sort your grandmother's scraps? You know 'there's lots to do.'"
"But I don't think I should like it," said Tommy. "I'd much rather have a Brownie to do it for me."
"And what would you do meanwhile?" asked the Owl. "Be idle, I suppose; and what do you suppose is the use of a man's having children if they do nothing to help him? Ah! if they only knew how every one would love them if they made themselves useful!"
"But is it really and truly so?" asked Tommy, in a dismal voice. "Are there no Brownies but children?"
"No, there are not," said the Owl. "And pray do you think that the Brownies, whoever they may be, come into the house to save trouble for the idle healthy little boys who live in it? Listen to me, Tommy," said the old lady, her eyes shooting rays of fire in the dark corner where she sat. "Listen to me, you are a clever boy, and can understand when one speaks; so I will tell you the whole history of the Brownies, as it has been handed down in our family from my grandmother's great-grandmother, who lived in the Druid's Oak, and was intimate with the fairies. And when I have done you shall tell me what you think they are, if they are not children. It's the opinion I have come to at any rate, and I don't think that wisdom died with our great-grandmothers."
"I should like to hear if you please," said Tommy.
The Old Owl shook out a tuft or two of fluff, and set her eyes a-going and began:
"The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes. They are like small editions of men and women, they are too small and fragile for heavy work; they have not the strength of a man, but are a thousand times more fresh and nimble. They can run and jump, and roll and tumble, with marvellous agility and endurance, and of many of the aches and pains which men and women groan under, they do not even know the names. They have no trade or profession, and as they live entirely upon other people, they know nothing of domestic cares; in fact, they know very little upon any subject, though they are often intelligent and highly inquisitive. They love dainties, play, and mischief. They are apt to be greatly beloved, and are themselves capriciously affectionate. They are little people, and can only do little things. When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing. Sometimes the Blessed Brownies will take up their abode with some worthy couple, cheer them with their romps and merry laughter, tidy the house, find things that have been lost, and take little troubles out of hands full of great anxieties. Then in time these Little People are Brownies no longer. They grow up into men and women. They do not care so much for dainties, play, or mischief. They cease to jump and tumble, and roll about the house. They know more, and laugh less. Then, when their heads begin to ache with anxiety, and they have to labour for their own living, and the great cares of life come on, other Brownies come and live with them, and take up their little cares, and supply their little comforts, and make the house merry once more."
"How nice!" said Tommy.
"Very nice," said the Old Owl. "But what"--and she shook herself more fiercely than ever, and glared so that Tommy expected nothing less than that her eyes would set fire to her feathers and she would be burnt alive. "But what must I say of the Boggarts? Those idle urchins who eat the bread-and-milk, and don't do the work, who lie in bed without an ache or pain to excuse them, who untidy instead of tidying, cause work instead of doing it, and leave little cares to heap on big cares, till the old people who support them are worn out altogether."
"Don't!" said Tommy. "I can't bear it."
"I hope when Boggarts grow into men," said the Old Owl, "that their children will be Boggarts too, and then they'll know what it is!"
"Don't!" roared Tommy. "I won't be a Boggart. I'll be a Brownie."
"That's right," nodded the Old Owl. "I said you were a boy who could understand when one spoke. And remember that the Brownies never are seen at their work. They get up before the household, and get away before any one can see them. I can't tell you why. I don't think my grandmother's great-grandmother knew. Perhaps because all good deeds are better done in secret."
"Please," said Tommy, "I should like to go home now, and tell Johnnie. It's getting cold, and I am so tired!"
"Very true," said the Old Owl, "and then you will have to be up early to-morrow. I think I had better take you home."
"I know the way, thank you," said Tommy.
"I didn't say _show_ you the way, I said _take_ you--carry you," said the Owl. "Lean against me."
"I'd rather not, thank you," said Tommy.
"Lean against me," screamed the Owl. "Oohoo! how obstinate boys are to be sure!"
Tommy crept up very unwillingly.
"Lean your full weight, and shut your eyes," said the Owl.
Tommy laid his head against the Old Owl's feathers, had a vague idea that she smelt of heather, and thought it must be from living on the moor, shut his eyes, and leant his full weight, expecting that he and the Owl would certainly fall off the beam together. Down--feathers--fluff--he sank and sank, could feel nothing solid, jumped up with a start to save himself, opened his eyes, and found that he was sitting among the heather in the malt-loft, with Johnnie sleeping by his side.
"How quickly we came!" said he; "that is certainly a very clever Old Owl. I couldn't have counted ten whilst my eyes were shut. How very odd!"
But what was odder still was, that it was no longer moonlight, but early dawn.
"Get up, Johnnie," said his brother, "I've got a story to tell you."
And while Johnnie sat up, and rubbed his eyes open, he related his adventures on the moor.
"Is all that true?" said Johnnie. "I mean, did it really happen?"
"Of course it did," said his brother; "don't you believe it?"
"Oh yes," said Johnnie. "But I thought it was perhaps only a true story, like Granny's true stories. I believe all those, you know. But if you were there, you know, it is different--"
"I was there," said Tommy, "and it's all just as I tell you: and I tell you what, if we mean to do anything we must get up: though, oh dear! I should like to stay in bed. I say," he added, after a pause, "suppose we do. It can't matter being Boggarts for one night more. I mean to be a Brownie before I grow up, though. I couldn't stand boggarty children."
"I won't be a Boggart at all," said Johnnie, "it's horrid. But I don't see how we can be Brownies, for I'm afraid we can't do the things. I wish I were bigger!"
"I can do it well enough," said Tommy, following his brother's example and getting up. "Don't you suppose I can light a fire? Think of all the bonfires we have made! And I don't think I should mind having a regular good tidy-up either. It's that stupid putting-away-things-when-you've-done-with-them that I hate so!"
The Brownies crept softly down the ladder and into the kitchen. There was the blank hearth, the dirty floor, and all the odds and ends lying about, looking cheerless enough in the dim light. Tommy felt quite important as he looked round. There is no such cure for untidiness as clearing up after other people; one sees so clearly where the fault lies.
"Look at that door-step, Johnnie," said the Brownie-elect, "what a mess you made of it! If you had lifted the moss carefully, instead of stamping and struggling with it, it would have saved us ten minutes' work this morning."
This wisdom could not be gainsaid, and Johnnie only looked meek and rueful.
"I am going to light the fire," pursued his brother;--"the next turfs, you know, _we_ must get--you can tidy a bit. Look at that knife I gave you to hold last night, and that wood--that's my fault though, and so are those scraps by Granny's chair. What are you grubbing at that rat-hole for?"
Johnnie raised his head somewhat flushed and tumbled.
"What do you think I have found?" said he triumphantly. "Father's measure that has been lost for a week!"
"Hurrah!" said Tommy, "put it by his things. That's just a sort of thing for a Brownie to have done. What will he say? And I say, Johnnie, when you've tidied, just go and grub up a potato or two in the garden, and I'll put them to roast for breakfast. I'm lighting such a bonfire!"
The fire was very successful. Johnnie went after the potatoes, and Tommy cleaned the door-step, swept the room, dusted the chairs and the old chest, and set out the table. There was no doubt he could be handy when he chose.
"I'll tell you what I've thought of, if we have time," said Johnnie, as he washed the potatoes in the water that had been set for Brownie. "We might run down to the South Pasture for some mushrooms. Father said the reason we found so few was that people go by sunrise for them to take to market. The sun's only just rising, we should be sure to find some, and they would do for breakfast."
"There's plenty of time," said Tommy; so they went. The dew lay heavy and thick upon the grass by the road-side, and over the miles of network that the spiders had woven from blossom to blossom of the heather. The dew is the Sun's breakfast; but he was barely up yet, and had not eaten it, and the world felt anything but warm. Nevertheless, it was so sweet and fresh as it is at no later hour of the day, and every sound was like the returning voice of a long-absent friend. Down to the pastures, where was more network and more dew, but when one has nothing to speak of in the way of boots, the state of the ground is of the less consequence.
The Tailor had been right, there was no lack of mushrooms at this time of the morning. All over the pasture they stood, of all sizes, some like buttons, some like tables; and in the distance one or two ragged women, stooping over them with baskets, looked like huge fungi also.
"This is where the fairies feast," said Tommy. "They had a large party last night. When they go, they take away the dishes and cups, for they are made of gold; but they leave their tables, and we eat them."
"I wonder whether giants would like to eat our tables," said Johnnie.
This was beyond Tommy's capabilities of surmise; so they filled a handkerchief, and hurried back again, for fear the Tailor should have come down-stairs.
They were depositing the last mushroom in a dish on the table, when his footsteps were heard descending.
"There he is!" exclaimed Tommy. "Remember, we mustn't be caught. Run back to bed."
Johnnie caught up the handkerchief, and smothering their laughter, the two scrambled back up the ladder, and dashed straight into the heather.
Meanwhile the poor Tailor came wearily down-stairs. Day after day, since his wife's death, he had come down every morning to the same desolate sight--yesterday's refuse and an empty hearth. This morning task of tidying was always a sad and ungrateful one to the widowed father. His awkward struggles with the house-work in which _she_ had been so notable, chafed him. The dirty kitchen was dreary, the labour lonely, and it was an hour's time lost to his trade. But life does not stand still while one is wishing, and so the Tailor did that for which there was neither remedy nor substitute; and came down this morning as other mornings to the pail and broom. When he came in he looked round, and started, and rubbed his eyes; looked round again, and rubbed them harder: then went up to the fire and held out his hand, (warm certainly)--then up to the table and smelt the mushrooms, (esculent fungi beyond a doubt)--handled the loaf, stared at the open door and window, the swept floor, and the sunshine pouring in, and finally sat down in stunned admiration. Then he jumped up and ran to the foot of the stairs, shouting,
"Mother! mother! Trout's luck has come again." "And yet, no!" he thought, "the old lady's asleep, it's a shame to wake her, I'll tell those idle rascally lads, they'll be more pleased than they deserve. It was Tommy after all that set the water and caught him." "Boys! boys!" he shouted at the foot of the ladder, "the Brownie has come!--and if he hasn't found my measure!" he added on returning to the kitchen; "this is as good as a day's work to me."
There was great excitement in the small household that day. The boys kept their own counsel. The old Grandmother was triumphant, and tried not to seem surprised. The Tailor made no such vain effort, and remained till bed-time in a state of fresh and unconcealed amazement.
"I've often heard of the Good People," he broke out towards the end of the evening. "And I've heard folk say they've known those that have seen them capering round the grey rocks on the moor at midnight: but this is wonderful! To come and do the work for a pan of cold water! Who could have believed it?"
"You might have believed it if you'd believed me, son Thomas," said the old lady tossily. "I told you so. But young people always know better than their elders!"
"I didn't see him," said the Tailor, beginning his story afresh; "but I thought as I came in I heard a sort of laughing and rustling."
"My mother said they often heard him playing and laughing about the house," said the old lady. "I told you so."
"Well, he sha'n't want for a bowl of bread-and-milk to-morrow, anyhow," said the Tailor, "if I have to stick to Farmer Swede's waistcoat till midnight."
But the waistcoat was finished by bed-time, and the Tailor set the bread-and-milk-himself, and went to rest.
"I say," said Tommy, when both the boys were in bed, "the Old Owl was right, and we must stick to it. But I'll tell you what I don't like, and that is Father thinking we're idle still. I wish he knew we were the Brownies."
"So do I," said Johnnie; and he sighed.
"I tell you what," said Tommy, with the decisiveness of elder brotherhood, "we'll keep quiet for a bit for fear we should leave off; but when we've gone on a good while, I shall tell him. It was only the Old Owl's grandmother's great-grandmother who said it was to be kept secret, and the Old Owl herself said grandmothers were not always in the right."
"No more they are," said Johnnie; "look at Granny about this."
"I know," said Tommy. "She's in a regular muddle."
"So she is," said Johnnie. "But that's rather fun, I think."
And they went to sleep.
Day after day went by, and still the Brownies "stuck to it," and did their work. It is no such very hard matter after all to get up early when one is young and light-hearted, and sleeps upon heather in a loft without window-blinds, and with so many broken window-panes that the air comes freely in. In old times the boys used to play at tents among the heather, while the Tailor did the house-work; now they came down and did it for him.
Size is not everything, even in this material existence. One has heard of dwarfs who were quite as clever (not to say as powerful) as giants, and I do not fancy that Fairy Godmothers are ever very large. It is wonderful what a comfort Brownies may be in the house that is fortunate enough to hold them! The Tailor's Brownies were the joy of his life; and day after day they seemed to grow more and more ingenious in finding little things to do for his good.
Now-a-days Granny never picked a scrap for herself. One day's shearings were all neatly arranged the next morning, and laid by her knitting-pins; and the Tailor's tape and shears were no more absent without leave.
One day a message came to him to offer him two or three days' tailoring in a farm-house some miles up the valley. This was pleasant and advantageous sort of work; good food, sure pay, and a cheerful change; but he did not know how he could leave his family, unless, indeed, the Brownie might be relied upon to "keep the house together," as they say. The boys were sure that he would, and they promised to set his water, and to give as little trouble as possible; so, finally, the Tailor took up his shears and went up the valley, where the green banks sloped up into purple moor, or broke into sandy rocks, crowned with nodding oak fern. On to the prosperous old farm, where he spent a very pleasant time, sitting level with the window geraniums on a table set apart for him, stitching and gossiping, gossiping and stitching, and feeling secure of honest payment when his work was done. The mistress of the house was a kind good creature, and loved a chat; and though the Tailor kept his own secret as to the Brownies, he felt rather curious to know if the Good People had any hand in the comfort of this flourishing household, and watched his opportunity to make a few careless inquiries on the subject.
"Brownies?" laughed the dame. "Ay, Master, I have heard of them. When I was a girl, in service at the old hall, on Cowberry Edge, I heard a good deal of one they said had lived there in former times. He did house-work as well as a woman, and a good deal quicker, they said. One night one of the young ladies (that were then, they're all dead now) hid herself in a cupboard, to see what he was like."
"And what was he like?" inquired the Tailor, as composedly as he was able.
"A little fellow, they said," answered the Farmer's wife, knitting calmly on. "Like a dwarf, you know, with a largish head for his body. Not taller than--why, my Bill, or your eldest boy, perhaps. And he was dressed in rags, with an old cloak on, and stamping with passion at a cobweb he couldn't get at with his broom. They've very uncertain tempers, they say. Tears one minute, and laughing the next."
"You never had one here, I suppose?" said the Tailor.
"Not we," she answered; "and I think I'd rather not. They're not canny after all; and my master and me have always been used to work, and we've sons and daughters to help us, and that's better than meddling with the Fairies, to my mind. No! no!" she added, laughing, "if we had had one you'd have heard of it, whoever didn't, for I should have had some decent clothes made for him. I couldn't stand rags and old cloaks, messing and moth-catching, in my house."
"They say it's not lucky to give them clothes, though," said the Tailor; "they don't like it."
"Tell me!" said the dame, "as if any one that liked a tidy room wouldn't like tidy clothes, if they could get them. No! no! when we have one, you shall take his measure, I promise you."
And this was all the Tailor got out of her on the subject. When his work was finished, the Farmer paid him at once; and the good dame added half a cheese, and a bottle-green coat.
"That has been laid by for being too small for the master now he's so stout," she said; "but except for a stain or two it's good enough, and will cut up like new for one of the lads."
The Tailor thanked them, and said farewell, and went home. Down the valley, where the river, wandering between the green banks and the sandy rocks, was caught by giant mosses, and bands of fairy fern, and there choked and struggled, and at last barely escaped with an existence, and ran away in a diminished stream. On up the purple hills to the old ruined house. As he came in at the gate he was struck by some idea of change, and looking again, he saw that the garden had been weeded, and was comparatively tidy. The truth is, that Tommy and Johnnie had taken advantage of the Tailor's absence to do some Brownie's work in the daytime.
"It's that Blessed Brownie!" said the Tailor. "Has he been as usual?" he asked, when he was in the house.
"To be sure," said the old lady; "all has been well, son Thomas."
"I'll tell you what it is," said the Tailor, after a pause. "I'm a needy man, but I hope I'm not ungrateful. I can never repay the Brownie for what he has done for me and mine; but the mistress up yonder has given me a bottle-green coat that will cut up as good as new; and as sure as there's a Brownie in this house, I'll make him a suit of it."
"You'll _what_?" shrieked the old lady. "Son Thomas, son Thomas, you're mad! Do what you please for the Brownies, but never make them clothes."
"There's nothing they want more," said the Tailor, "by all accounts. They're all in rags, as well they may be, doing so much work."
"If you make clothes for this Brownie, he'll go for good," said the Grandmother, in a voice of awful warning.
"Well, I don't know," said her son. "The mistress up at the farm is clever enough, I can tell you; and as she said to me, fancy any one that likes a tidy room not liking a tidy coat!" For the Tailor, like most men, was apt to think well of the wisdom of womankind in other houses.
"Well, well," said the old lady, "go your own way. I'm an old woman, and my time is not long. It doesn't matter much to me. But it was new clothes that drove the Brownie out before, and Trout's luck went with him."
"I know, Mother," said the Tailor, "and I've been thinking of it all the way home; and I can tell you why it was. Depend upon it, _the clothes didn't fit_. But I'll tell you what I mean to do. I shall measure them by Tommy--they say the Brownies are about his size--and if ever I turned out a well-made coat and waistcoat, they shall be his."
"Please yourself," said the old lady, and she would say no more.
"I think you're quite right, Father," said Tommy, "and if I can, I'll help you to make them."
Next day the father and son set to work, and Tommy contrived to make himself so useful, that the Tailor hardly knew how he got through so much work.
"It's not like the same thing," he broke out at last, "to have some one a bit helpful about you; both for the tailoring and for company's sake. I've not done such a pleasant morning's work since your poor mother died. I'll tell you what it is, Tommy," he added, "if you were always like this, I shouldn't much care whether Brownie stayed or went. I'd give up his help to have yours."
"I'll be back directly," said Tommy, who burst out of the room in search of his brother.
"I've come away," he said, squatting down, "because I can't bear it. I very nearly let it all out, and I shall soon. I wish the things weren't going to come to me," he added, kicking a stone in front of him. "I wish he'd measured you, Johnnie."
"I'm very glad he didn't," said Johnnie. "I wish he'd kept them himself."
"Bottle-green, with brass buttons," murmured Tommy, and therewith fell into a reverie.
The next night the suit was finished, and laid by the bread-and-milk.
"We shall see," said the old lady, in a withering tone. There is not much real prophetic wisdom in this truism, but it sounds very awful, and the Tailor went to bed somewhat depressed.
Next morning the Brownies came down as usual.
"Don't they look splendid?" said Tommy, feeling the cloth. "When we've tidied the place I shall put them on."
But long before the place was tidy, he could wait no longer, and dressed up.
"Look at me!" he shouted; "bottle-green and brass buttons! Oh, Johnnie, I wish you had some."
"It's a good thing there are two Brownies," said Johnnie, laughing, "and one of them in rags still. I shall do the work this morning." And he went flourishing round with a broom, while Tommy jumped madly about in his new suit. "Hurrah!" he shouted, "I feel just like the Brownie. What was it Granny said he sang when he got his clothes? Oh, I know--
And on he danced, regardless of the clouds of dust raised by Johnnie, as he drove the broom indiscriminately over the floor, to the tune of his own laughter.
It was laughter which roused the Tailor that morning, laughter coming through the floor from the kitchen below. He scrambled on his things and stole down-stairs.
"It's the Brownie," he thought; "I must look, if it's for the last time."
At the door he paused and listened. The laughter was mixed with singing, and he heard the words--
The kitchen in its primeval condition of chaos, the untidy particulars of which were the less apparent, as everything was more or less obscured by the clouds of dust, where Johnnie reigned triumphant, like a witch with her broomstick; and, to crown all, Tommy capering and singing in the Brownie's bottle-green suit, brass buttons and all.
"What's this?" shouted the astonished Tailor, when he could find breath to speak.
"It's the Brownies," sang the boys; and on they danced, for they had worked themselves up into a state of excitement from which it was not easy to settle down.
"Where _is_ Brownie?" shouted the father.
"He's here," said Tommy; "we are the Brownies."
"Can't you stop that fooling?" cried the Tailor, angrily. "This is past a joke. Where is the real Brownie, I say?"
"We are the only Brownies, really, Father," said Tommy, coming to a full stop, and feeling strongly tempted to run down from laughing to crying. "Ask the Old Owl. It's true, really."
The Tailor saw the boy was in earnest, and passed his hand over his forehead.
"I suppose I'm getting old," he said; "I can't see daylight through this. If you are the Brownie, who has been tidying the kitchen lately?"
"We have," said they.
"But who found my measure?"
"I did," said Johnnie.
"And who sorts your grandmother's scraps?"
"We do," said they.
"And who sets breakfast, and puts my things in order?"
"We do," said they.
"But when do you do it?" asked the Tailor.
"Before you come down," said they.
"But I always have to call you," said the Tailor.
"We get back to bed again," said the boys.
"But how was it you never did it before?" asked the Tailor doubtfully.
"We were idle, we were idle," said Tommy.
The Tailor's voice rose to a pitch of desperation--
"But if you did the work," he shouted, "_where is the Brownie?_"
"Here!" cried the boys, "and we are very sorry that we were Boggarts so long."
With which the father and sons fell into each other's arms and fairly wept.
* * * * *
It will be believed that to explain all this to the Grandmother was not the work of a moment. She understood it all at last, however, and the Tailor could not restrain a little good-humoured triumph on the subject. Before he went to work he settled her down in the window with her knitting, and kissed her.
"What do you think of it all, Mother?" he inquired.
"Bairns are a blessing," said the old lady tartly, "_I told you so._"
* * * * *
"That's not the end, is it?" asked one of the boys in a tone of dismay, for the Doctor had paused here.
"Yes, it is," said he.
"But couldn't you make a little more end?" asked Deordie, "to tell us what became of them all?"
"I don't see what there is to tell," said the Doctor.
"Why, there's whether they ever saw the Old Owl again, and whether Tommy and Johnnie went on being Brownies," said the children.
The Doctor laughed.
"Well, be quiet for five minutes," he said.
"We'll be as quiet as mice," said the children.
And as quiet as mice they were. Very like mice, indeed. Very like mice behind a wainscot at night, when you have just thrown something to frighten them away. Death-like stillness for a few seconds, and then all the rustling and scuffling you please. So the children sat holding their breath for a moment or two, and then shuffling feet and smothered bursts of laughter testified to their impatience, and to the difficulty of understanding the process of story-making as displayed by the Doctor, who sat pulling his beard, and staring at his boots, as he made up "a little more end."
"Well," he said, sitting up suddenly, "the Brownies went on with their work in spite of the bottle-green suit, and Trout's luck returned to the old house once more. Before long Tommy began to work for the farmers, and Baby grew up into a Brownie, and made (as girls are apt to make) the best house-sprite of all. For, in the Brownie's habits of self-denial, thoughtfulness, consideration, and the art of little kindnesses, boys are, I am afraid, as a general rule, somewhat behindhand with their sisters. Whether this altogether proceeds from constitutional deficiency on these points in the masculine character, or is one result among many of the code of bye-laws which obtains in men's moral education from the cradle, is a question on which everybody has their own opinion. For the present the young gentlemen may appropriate whichever theory they prefer, and we will go back to the story. The Tailor lived to see his boy-Brownies become men, with all the cares of a prosperous farm on their hands, and his girl-Brownie carry her fairy talents into another home. For these Brownies--young ladies!--are much desired as wives, whereas a man might as well marry an old witch as a young Boggartess."
"And about the Owl?" clamoured the children, rather resentful of the Doctor's pausing to take breath.
"Of course," he continued, "the Tailor heard the whole story, and being both anxious to thank the Old Owl for her friendly offices, and also rather curious to see and hear her, he went with the boys one night at moon-rise to the shed by the mere. It was earlier in the evening than when Tommy went, for before daylight had vanished, and at the first appearance of the moon, the impatient Tailor was at the place. There they found the Owl looking very solemn and stately on the beam. She was sitting among the shadows with her shoulders up, and she fixed her eyes so steadily on the Tailor, that he felt quite overpowered. He made her a civil bow, however, and said,
"I'm much obliged to you, Ma'am, for your good advice to my Tommy."
The Owl blinked sharply, as if she grudged shutting her eyes for an instant, and then stared on, but not a word spoke she.
"I don't mean to intrude, Ma'am," said the Tailor, "but I was wishful to pay my respects and gratitude."
Still the Owl gazed in determined silence.
"Don't you remember me?" said Tommy pitifully. "I did everything you told me. Won't you even say good-bye?" and he went up towards her.
The Owl's eyes contracted, she shuddered a few tufts of fluff into the shed, shook her wings, and shouting "Oohoo!" at the top of her voice, flew out upon the moor. The Tailor and his sons rushed out to watch her. They could see her clearly against the green twilight sky, flapping rapidly away with her round face to the pale moon. "Good-bye!" they shouted as she disappeared; first the departing owl, then a shadowy body with flapping sails, then two wings beating the same measured time, then two moving lines still to the old tune, then a stroke, a fancy, and then--the green sky and the pale moon, but the Old Owl was gone.
"Did she never come back?" asked Tiny in subdued tones, for the Doctor had paused again.
"No," said he; "at least not to the shed by the mere. Tommy saw many owls after this in the course of his life; but as none of them would speak, and as most of them were addicted to the unconventional customs of staring and winking, he could not distinguish his friend, if she were among them. And now I think that is all."
"Is that the very very end?" asked Tiny.
"The very very end," said the Doctor.
"I suppose there might be more and more ends," speculated Deordie--"about whether the Brownies had any children when they grew into farmers, and whether the children were Brownies, and whether _they_ had other Brownies, and so on and on." And Deordie rocked himself among the geraniums, in the luxurious imagining of an endless fairy tale.
"You insatiable rascal!" said the Doctor. "Not another word. Jump up, for I am going to see you home. I have to be off early to-morrow."
"Where?" said Deordie.
"Never mind. I shall be away all day, and I want to be at home in good time in the evening, for I mean to attack that crop of groundsel between the sweet-pea hedges. You know, no Brownies come to my homestead!"
And the Doctor's mouth twitched a little till he fixed it into a stiff smile.
The children tried hard to extract some more ends out of him on the way to the Rectory; but he declined to pursue the history of the Trout family through indefinite generations. It was decided on all hands, however, that Tommy Trout was evidently one and the same with the Tommy Trout who pulled the cat out of the well, because "it was just a sort of thing for a Brownie to do, you know!" and that Johnnie Green (who, of course, was not Johnnie Trout) was some unworthy village acquaintance, and "a thorough Boggart."
"Doctor!" said Tiny, as they stood by the garden-gate, "how long do you think gentlemen's pocket-handkerchiefs take to wear out?"
"That, my dear Madam," said the Doctor, "must depend, like other terrestrial matters, upon circumstances; whether the gentleman bought fine cambric, or coarse cotton with pink portraits of the reigning Sovereign, to commence with; whether he catches many colds, has his pockets picked, takes snuff, or allows his washerwoman to use washing powders. But why do you want to know?"
"I sha'n't tell you that," said Tiny, who was spoilt by the Doctor, and consequently tyrannized in proportion; "but I will tell you what I mean to do. I mean to tell Mother that when Father wants any more pocket-handkerchiefs hemmed, she had better put them by the bath in the nursery, and perhaps some Brownie will come and do them."
"Kiss my fluffy face!" said the Doctor in sepulchral tones.
"The owl is too high up," said Tiny, tossing her head.
The Doctor lifted her four feet or so, obtained his kiss, and set her down again.
"You're not fluffy at all," said she in a tone of the utmost contempt; "you're tickly and bristly. Puss is more fluffy, and Father is scrubby and scratchy, because he shaves."
"And which of the three styles do you prefer?" said the Doctor.
"Not tickly and bristly," said Tiny with firmness; and she strutted up the walk for a space or two, and then turned round to laugh over her shoulder.
"Good-night!" shouted her victim, shaking his fist after her.
The other children took a noisy farewell, and they all raced into the house to give joint versions of the fairy tale, first to the parents in the drawing-room, and then to Nurse in the nursery.
The Doctor went home also, with his poodle at his heels, but not by the way he came. He went out of his way, which was odd; but then the Doctor was "a little odd," and moreover this was always the end of his evening walk. Through the church-yard, where spreading cedars and stiff yews rose from the velvet grass, and where among tombstones and crosses of various devices lay one of older and uglier date, by which he stayed. It was framed by a border of the most brilliant flowers, and it would seem as if the Doctor must have been the gardener, for he picked off some dead ones, and put them absently in his pocket. Then he looked round as if to see that he was alone. Not a soul was to be seen, and the moonlight and shadow lay quietly side by side, as the dead do in their graves. The Doctor stooped down and took off his hat.
"Good-night, Marcia," he said in a low quiet voice. "Good-night, my darling!" The dog licked his hand, but there was no voice to answer, nor any that regarded.
Poor foolish Doctor! Most foolish to speak to the departed with his face earthwards. But we are weak mortals, the best of us; and this man (one of the very best) raised his head at last, and went home like a lonely owl with his face to the moon and the sky.
"There she comes," said his wife, looking out of the window, "by the garden-gate, with a great basket; what has she been after?"
The Rector went out to discover, and met his daughter looking decidedly earthy, and seemingly much exhausted by the weight of a basketful of groundsel plants.
"Where have you been?" said he.
"In the Doctor's garden," said Tiny triumphantly; "and look what I have done! I've weeded his sweet-peas, and brought away the groundsel; so when he gets home to-night he'll think a Brownie has been in the garden, for Mrs. Pickles has promised not to tell him."
"But look here!" said the Rector, affecting a great appearance of severity, "you're my Brownie, not his. Supposing Tommy Trout had gone and weeded Farmer Swede's garden, and brought back his weeds to go to seed on the Tailor's flower-beds, how do you think he would have liked it?"
Tiny looked rather crestfallen. When one has fairly carried through a splendid benevolence of this kind, it is trying to find oneself in the wrong. She crept up to the Rector, however, and put her golden head upon his arm.
"But, Father dear," she pleaded, "I didn't mean not to be your Brownie; only, you know, you had got five left at home, and it was only for a short time, and the Doctor hasn't any Brownie at all. Don't you pity him?"
And the Rector, who was old enough to remember that grave-stone story we wot of, hugged his Brownie in his arms, and answered,
"My Darling, I do pity him!"
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